Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Book notes: Taylor's Civil War of 1812


I know it was published in 2010 (handsome paperback edition 2011), and it had the buzz back last spring when War of 1812 commemoration was news. But I just got around to reading Alan Taylor's The Civil War of 1812, and my admiration has been growing steadily.

Much has been made of Taylor's argument that the War of 1812 is best understood as a continuation of the pro-British/anti-British civil war aspects of the American Revolution, but with many more divided constituencies drawn in: American for the war and against the War; Upper Canadians for the Brits and against the Brits; Irish filling the ranks of the British regiments but also providing a powerful anti-British constituency in the United States; Brits who want to desert to the Americans and Americans willing to deal with the British; and First Nations, African-Americans and other minorities endlessly divided in their reactions.

Taylor makes that case -- about the civil-war nature of the war -- effectively.  But this is a hell of a history book even if you don't take much interest in that thesis.  Taylor, rather unusually, I think, has taught himself a lot about both sides in the conflict and as a result his account of the origins of the war is one of the best and clearest I have ever seen. Indeed, once he gets to the actual war, my interest flagged a bit, as he is compelled to march us through one squalid skirmish after another. (All by the way, on the Upper Canadian side of the war; he isn't interested at all in the naval contest on the Atlantic Coast, except as a cause of the war.)  Even on a smallish detail, he's much more coherent on why Joseph Willcocks went from the Upper Canadian legislature to leading an American partisan regiment than is, say, the usually indispensable DCB.

I am ceaselessly impressed by his wealth of quotation and the range of his sources. Sometimes you can just read a history book without much concern for what the subject is, in simple admiration at the technical historical virtuosity that is on display. This is one. Taylor's Civil War is a pretty serious read, though indeed his method is almost entirely based on traditional diplomatic and military history narrative -- not a statistical table in the book, but his footnotes are awesomely comprehensive. I'm becoming a fan.

I see Everyday History has its own fave-rave posted today, on a very different book on another subject entirely.

Update, March 6.  Chris Raible, who knows Upper Canadian history, writes:
I've been praising Alan Taylor for years - from his Cooper's Town, his Penguin American Colonies, his Divided Ground books and his many articles including one on Late Loyalists. Welcome aboard.